Editor’s Note: The Oxford American magazine has spotlighted Country Music Hall of Fame members Felice and Boudleuax Bryant in the publication’s 12th annual Southern Music issue. In the article, author Frank Bruno recalls the couple’s first encounter, their partnership with music publishing pioneer Fred Rose and the success of iconic songs like “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Bye Bye Love” and “Rocky Top.” The issue is on newsstands now. Here’s an excerpt:
If you’re drawn to musicians who salvage their art from tragic romance, addiction, and other personal wreckage, you may as well turn elsewhere now. The lives and joint career of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, Nashville’s first full-time, non-performing songwriters, offer few attractions for the rubbernecker. By all accounts, their forty-two-year marital and creative partnership was nearly idyllic, as Boudleaux acknowledged when asked to explain the optimism of many of their songs: “I suppose it’s because we’ve had such a very wonderful relationship.” One song credited to Felice alone, the guileless “We Could,” was written as a birthday surprise for her husband:
If anyone could find the joy
That true love brings a girl and boy
We could, you and I.
The Bryants were consummate song-pitchers as well as lovebirds: “We Could” was soon widely recorded, charting for Little Jimmy Dickens in 1954 — then for pop singer Al Martino in 1964, and for Charley Pride a decade after that.
Of the several thousand songs they wrote — between three and seven, depending on who’s counting — many are perennials, from “Take Me As I Am (or Let Me Go)” and “I Can Hear Kentucky Calling Me” to several of the twenty-seven recorded by the Everly Brothers, including “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Love Hurts,” and “Sleepless Nights.” Heartache and midnight-longing not being the sole property of the self-destructive or professionally miserable, some of their songs convey these emotions as well as anyone’s. Low-spirited or high-, however, the Bryants’ work endures for its craft and concision as well as its depth of feeling. Felice called their style “basic black with a string of pearls,” a not-very-countrified description of its economy of means and offhand elegance. Though versatile pop writers, they found their niche in country, bluegrass, and early rock & roll, genres about which some listeners (and too many critics) still cherish the illusion that words and melodies burst fully formed from performers’ troubled souls. While rarely arty or showy in a way that would break the spell, the Bryants’ songs also broke musical ground, especially harmonically. “The people who were around Nashville recording loved those chords,” Felice once said, “and Boudleaux was able to put in even more for the Everlys because they were really good guitar players.”
Diadorious Boudleaux Bryant was born in 1920. His father was a Georgia lawyer and also played trombone and violin at local hoedowns. Violin soon became the younger Bryant’s main instrument as well. After spending a season with the Atlanta Symphony when he was eighteen, Boudleaux hitched his fiddle to the new jazz-hillbilly hybrid known as Western swing, joining banjo-playing bandleader Hank Penny in 1939. Penny, an Alabama native whose freewheeling shuffles were also shaped by a long stint in New Orleans, later made his mark in Nashville, Las Vegas, and especially Hollywood, where he opened the legendary Palomino Club and earned television fame as Spade Cooley’s comic foil. During Bryant’s tenure with Penny’s Radio Cowboys, the band’s bread-and-butter lay in barnstorming tours through the South — and beyond.
On a Milwaukee hotel booking in 1945, the violinist met elevator operator Matilda Genevieve Scaduto, five years his junior. Felice, to use the pet name she soon adopted, would later claim to have recognized the traveling musician — except for the absence of facial hair — as the lover that had appeared to her in dreams since she was eight. Boudleaux obligingly grew a beard, though presumably not in time for their wedding less than a week later.
Trading the touring life with Penny for radio work and the occasional appearance as a singing duo, the couple settled in Moultrie, Georgia, where they began to combine Boudleaux’s tunes with Felice’s poetry, though the roles of composer and lyricist quickly blurred. With Felice seemingly less inclined to buck the “good old boy world out there” than Cindy Walker (country’s other important early female songwriter), early copyrights bore only Boudleaux’s name, but they were collaborators from the start. Only once established would the appearance of just one partner’s name on a publishing credit — such as Felice’s “We Could,” or Boudleaux’s mariachi-styled instrumental “Mexico,” a 1961 hit for Bob Moore — be even a rough indication of a given song’s sole authorship. Later, their son Dane reported that his father called Felice “the idea person,” and, in the late 1970s, Boudleaux agreed that she was the more driven partner: “I can go for six months and not write anything more than a note: I’ve gone down to the lake and I’m fishing. … She writes constantly and puts it on paper.” Boudleaux, the trained musician, often applied the final polish, codifying melodies and chord changes in the deft notations that fill the ledgers the couple used to collect finished and unfinished songs.
Peppering any publisher whose address they could find with lead sheets, the team sold a few early songs (such as Ernie Lee’s long-buried “1-2-3-4-5-foot-6″) to artists on regional labels. Their break came in 1949 when a friend passed their “Country Boy,” a swinging, sharply rhymed statement of rural identity (“Epsom salts and i’dine”/”My s’penders out of plough-lines”) to publisher Fred Rose.
It’s worth pausing to note that a career of the kind the Bryants hoped for, and ultimately had, would not have been possible without Rose or someone like him. Early publishers of rural and hillbilly music paid recording artists a flat fee that included the eternal rights to their songs, effectively “strip-mining” their current repertoires with little thought for what they might produce in the future. (The vivid image is historian Richard Peterson’s.) Later entrepreneurs wisely shared royalties with performers, encouraging them to generate new, if not always “original,” songs. Victor Records’ Ralph Peer drew a nominal one-dollar salary from his employers, but became rich from his personal share of the Carter Family‘s and Jimmie Rodgers‘s copyrights. In 1942, Rose, a Tin Pan Alley veteran who had written for Sophie Tucker and Gene Autry, joined forces with Roy Acuff to distribute the Opry star’s song folios. Refining Peer’s model, Acuff-Rose became Nashville’s first publishing giant, midwifing the crossover smash “Tennessee Waltz,” providing advances to contract writers like Hank Williams, and matching singers who didn’t write with writers who didn’t sing.
Rose wired the Bryants money to pull their trailer into Nashville. If he knew that “Country Boy” was the handiwork of a former symphony violinist and his Wisconsin-born Italian-American bride, he didn’t care. Authentic or not, the song was perfect for Little Jimmy Dickens, whose recording initiated a string of hits written or co-written by Boudleaux (“I’m Little But I’m Loud,” “Out Behind the Barn”) that fit Dickens’s 4’11″ stature and “banty rooster” persona as comfortably as his kiddie-cut Nudie suits. (Another of their hits for Dickens, the rocking “(I Got) a Hole in My Pocket,” was revived by Ricky Van Shelton in 2008.) Writing bespoke songs was fine practice for what the Bryants would achieve with the Everlys. Just as importantly, Dickens’s fondness for minor chords encouraged Boudleaux’s harmonic flights.
The full-length version of this article originally appeared in The Oxford American‘s 12th annual Southern Music issue, published in December 2010. More information can be found at The Oxford American‘s website.